Opportunity knocks for talented Riley

PETE MCNAE
Last updated 13:07 15/05/2014
Gus Riley
FAIRFAX NZ
FUTURE BULLDOG: Nelson Giants big man Gus Riley’s rapid improvement has seen him earn a college scholarship to Bryant University in Rhode Island.

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Teenagers have plenty on their minds in year 12; those all-important level 2 marks, restricted licences, Snapchat, Instagram and pre-mixed bourbon.

And, for a select few, there was the added complication of editing together a basketball video that might open up an opportunity to get a subsidised education on the other side of the world.

Fico Finance Nelson Giants forward Gus Riley clearly didn't waste his penultimate year at Nayland College. An 18-month campaign culminated in Riley signing a commitment letter last weekend to attend Bryant University, a Division 1 college in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Despite having made national age group selections in the past, Riley said he really only began to rate his chances of earning a college scholarship during 2012.

He caught the eye of Australian basketball recruiter Nathan Lovett, who began knocking on doors, a process that gathered impetus when Giants coach Liam Flynn also started to work his basketball contacts in the States.

Riley had interest from a couple of junior college programmes before Bryant, which plays in the NEC (Northeast Conference), offered a scholarship.

"D1 is the way to go for me," the 18-year-old said. "The junior college path suits some guys but I didn't want to be back on the recruiting treadmill in two years from now. Going to a four-year school means that I can get in there and steadily get better on the court and in the classroom."

Riley, a gifted student, had no issues with his academic transcripts or the SAT (scholastic aptitude test) and plans to begin a biology degree when he arrives in Rhode Island for his freshman year in August.

The Bryant Bulldogs have been in Division 1 for less than a decade but are a team on the rise. In the past season, they reached the conference quarterfinals, finished with a 10-6 record in the NEC and were 18-14 overall.

Importantly, they had four Australian students in their squad last season, a factor Riley thinks will help his transition.

"They seem to like the kids from Down Under and it might make fitting in easier, on both sides."

A promising 2014 campaign with the Giants in the Bartercard NBL will also help. After making three fleeting appearances last season, grabbing three rebounds but going scoreless, Riley has played in all 10 games this year, averaging 18 minutes and five points with a high score of 11.

Riley said the first question recruiters asked upon seeing a potential player's videotape was: "How good is the league?"

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"Being able to say that my team-mates include Josh Pace, who has a college championship, and Jamal Boykin, who went to two very good D1 schools, got their attention," he said.

"Having some footage from a pretty decent pro league has helped a lot."

Riley started the season at power forward for the Giants and the 2.03m, 105kg teenager is currently sharing minutes with Finn Delany and Bronson Beri in Nelson's frontcourt rotation.

His strength is his ability to shoot and Riley has made eight of 16 three-point attempts this season but it's another big-man responsibility that he is working hard to improve.

"I need to rebound better, we all do," he said.

The Giants suffered a butt-whipping on the boards in Invercargill last Saturday. With NBL leaders, the Bay Hawks, in town tomorrow to play at 7pm in Saxton Stadium, another limp rebounding effort would be damaging.

"Most of the focus has been on our defensive boards this week," Riley said. "Not just finding our man, but actively locking him up and being much more aggressive going after the ball.

"Not having Mika [Vukona] here is tough but rebounding isn't the responsibility of just one guy, anyway.

"No-one was good enough in Southland and that can't happen again."

Riley's blossoming in the past two years is the result of a heap of hard work. Flynn told him, in his first two-day visit to Nelson, that Riley needed to change his body shape to become a factor at the NBL level.

"Claire [Dallison, Nelson's fitness trainer] and physio Dawn [Chalmers] have been great. I started to eat better but they put the strength programmes in and kept me on the court."

Parents Caroline and Nigel, who also have an older son and sporting triplets younger than Gus still at home, continue to spend countless hours and dollars giving their children the chance to excel.

The payoff is coming though. Along with the scholarship, Riley has been invited to attend the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp in Taipei in June.

An invitation-only event staged by the NBA and basketball's governing body, Fiba, Riley will be guided by NBA coaches and tutored by NBA players.

It will mean he misses a Giants game but, with all his expenses being paid, accepting the invitation was an easy decision. "I'm not sure how my name went forward but I got the chance and I said ‘please' and ‘thank you'."

National league basketball, Fico Finance Nelson Giants (7-3) versus IMS Payroll Bay Hawks (9-2), 7pm tomorrow, Saxton Stadium.

- Nelson

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